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Anselm Gerhard

Grosse historisch-romantische Oper in three acts by Gaspare Spontini to a libretto by Ernst Raupach; Berlin, Königliches Opernhaus, 12 June 1829.

Although banished by Emperor Henry VI (baritone), Heinrich (tenor), son of the Emperor’s Guelph opponent Henry the Lion, is in Mainz incognito in the year 1194 to win his beloved Agnes (soprano), a cousin of the Emperor. He is arrested; however, he not only escapes from prison but also secretly marries Agnes and triumphs over his rival, King Philip of France (baritone). The angry Emperor is finally persuaded by the imperial knights and the intercession of his brother Philip (tenor) and Agnes’s mother Irmengard (soprano) to bow to the triumph of love.

Spontini worked for many years on this, his last opera, which he considered his major work. Only the first act was ready for performance at the scheduled première on 28 May 1827. After extensive revisions of the completed work, which was first performed on ...



Scott L. Balthazar

Dramma semiserio per musica in two acts by Ferdinando Paer to a libretto by Luigi Buonavoglia after Filippo Casari’s play Agnese di Fizendry; Parma, Villa Scotti, Teatro Ponte d’Attaro, October 1809.

Seven years before the opera takes place, Agnese (soprano) has driven her father Uberto (bass) to madness by marrying Ernesto (tenor), whom Uberto despises. Confined to an asylum and believing Agnese to be dead, Uberto has been ignored by his daughter until Ernesto’s infidelity causes her to seek him out again. With the help of Don Pasquale (bass), superintendent of the asylum, and Don Girolamo (tenor), her father’s caretaker, she gradually convinces him that she is still alive. Uberto finally recognizes her, and he recovers his sanity completely when she performs a song that she often sang to him before their estrangement; Agnese forgives Ernesto after he repents of his indiscretions. The kindly Don Pasquale, himself a contented father, and his loyal daughter Carlotta (soprano) serve as dramatic foils to Uberto and Agnese and provide comic relief....


Robert Hoskins

[The Agreeable Surprise, or The Secret Enlarged]

Comic afterpiece, op.16, in two acts by Samuel Arnold to a libretto by John O’Keeffe; London, Little Theatre in the Haymarket, 4 September 1781.

This opera, which played for 200 performances over the rest of the century, chiefly owed its popularity to the novelty of the acting, especially that of John Edwin as Lingo (baritone), the schoolmaster-turned-butler who is continually misquoting Latin tags. The plot is a parable of rustic virtue and innocence set against the deceptions of the town; tuneful strophic airs are appropriate in the representation of comic country characters and Arnold’s score has some good examples. Lingo’s ‘Amo, amas, I love a lass’ became famous as a student song....


Anthony Hicks

Drama per musica in three acts by George Frideric Handel to a libretto by Vincenzo Grimani ; Venice, Teatro S Giovanni Gristostomo, 26 December 1709.

Handel’s second and last opera written in Italy, Agrippina effectively established his international reputation. According to Mainwaring’s Memoirs of the Life of … Handel (1760) it was performed 27 times (not an unusual run for the main opera of the Venetian carnival) and was enthusiastically received with cries of ‘Viva il caro Sassone!’. The original cast included Margherita Durastanti (a former colleague from Rome) in the title role, Diamante Maria Scarabelli as Poppaea, Antonio Francesco Carli as Claudius, Francesca Vanini as Otho and her husband Giuseppe Maria Boschi as Pallas. Nero and Narcissus were sung by the castratos Valeriano Pellegrini and Giuliano Albertini. Elena Croce (listed as the Agrippina in one MS source) may have replaced Durastanti in some performances. The opera was subjected to revision before performance and possibly during its initial run: there are significant differences between Handel’s autograph and the printed wordbook of ...


David Murray

(‘The Egyptian Helen’)

Oper in two acts by Richard Strauss to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal; Dresden, Staatsoper, 6 June 1928 (revised version, Salzburg, Festspielhaus, 14 August 1933).

After Strauss completed Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1917 there was a long hiatus in his operatic partnership with Hofmannsthal. In the early 1920s Hofmannsthal made abortive sketches for a Semiramis libretto (which Strauss had yearned for since Elektra) and on the Danae myth (left for Joseph Gregor to realize 17 years later); but among several classical candidates they agreed at last upon Helen. Strauss saw her as a role for Maria Jeritza, their original Ariadne and Empress, who had first entranced him in the title role of Offenbach’s La belle Hélène. He and Hofmannsthal assured each other that this opera would be buoyant and sparkling in three acts with ballet-interludes, much spoken dialogue and light arioso. But the Helen who fascinated the writer came from a more sophisticated legend, a poetical conjecture by Stesichorus (...




Roger Parker

Opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni after a scenario by Auguste Mariette; Cairo, Opera House, 24 December 1871.

During the late 1860s the search for suitable librettos began to cause Verdi increasing problems. One of his most active helpers was the French librettist and impresario Camille Du Locle, with whom Verdi had collaborated in the making of Don Carlos. Du Locle sent Verdi a stream of possible subjects covering a wide variety of genres: from comic plots that might have continued the manner of Un ballo in maschera to large-scale topics suitable for conversion into grand opera. But Verdi became more and more difficult to please, finding the comic subjects structurally or temperamentally unsuitable, while often complaining of the ‘patchwork’ quality of grand opera, its inherent lack of coherence. The breakthrough came in the early months of 1870, when Du Locle sent Verdi a scenario by the archaeologist and Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, based on an invented story set in Egyptian antiquity. Verdi had the previous year refused to supply an inaugural hymn as part of the celebrations to open the Suez Canal; but he accepted this new Egyptian idea – which was to open the new Cairo Opera House – almost immediately, appointing as librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, his collaborator in the revised ...


Richard Langham Smith

(‘The Young Eagle’). Drame musical in five acts by Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert to a libretto by Henri Cain after Edmond Rostand’s play; Monte Carlo, Opéra, 10 March 1937.

It was the first of two stage works by Honegger and Ibert (the other being an operetta, Les petites Cardinal). Apparently after each composer had separately refused involvement in L’aiglon, they were brought together through the breakdown of a car and agreed to collaborate, Honegger contributing the central three acts. Its potentially serious subject – a war where the Duc de Reichstadt, Napoleon’s son (nicknamed ‘L’aiglon’; soprano), is torn between his Austrian roots and his French allegiances – is treated lightly. Military strategies are planned with toy soldiers, and Act 3 is a ball which introduces characters from the commedia dell’arte. Ibert’s pastiches of waltzes and of 18th-century music are here given full rein and both composers seem to have fulfilled the commission (from the impresario Raoul Gunsbourg) for ‘music easily accessible to the public’....


William Ashbrook

(‘The Tutor in a Jam’)

Melodramma giocoso in two acts by Gaetano Donizetti to a libretto by Jacopo Ferretti after Giovanni Giraud’s L’ajo nell’imbarazzo (1807, Rome); Rome, Teatro Valle, 4 February 1824 (revised as Don Gregorio, Naples, Teatro Nuovo, 11 June 1826).

This was the first sustained success of Donizetti’s career. A father, Marchese Giulio (baritone), having been maltreated by a woman, insists that his two sons grow up without knowing any females. Their tutor, Don Gregorio (buffo bass), vainly tries to persuade the boys to follow this edict. The elder, Enrico (tenor), however, secretly married to Gilda (soprano) for a year, has fathered a son; the younger, Pipetto (tenor), is smitten by an aged serving-woman, Leonarda (mezzo-soprano). Anxious to acknowledge his bride, Enrico tries to enlist Don Gregorio’s help, producing Gilda and the baby to strengthen his arguments. Returning home inopportunely, the Marchese learns the truth about his sons, and sings a scena and aria expressing his fury and his sorrow. Hearing his decision to disinherit Enrico in favour of Pipetto, Gilda threatens to kill herself and the baby. The Marchese relents, acknowledges Enrico’s marriage and, dismissing Leonarda, sends Pipetto off on a tour of Europe....


Tim Page

Opera in three acts by Philip Glass to a libretto by the composer, Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel and Richard Riddell; Stuttgart, Staatsoper, 24 March 1984.

Glass has called Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten a trilogy of ‘portrait’ operas. From a purely dramatic standpoint such a grouping makes sense, although all of the composer’s later operas bear closer musical resemblance to Satyagraha (1980) than they do to the sui generis Einstein on the Beach (1976). In Satyagraha Glass developed his own distinctive mutation of ‘traditional’ opera and the works which have followed are cast in a related musical mould.

Akhnaten opens in 1875 bc in Egypt. On the death of his father, Akhnaten (counter-tenor) is crowned as the new King Amenhotep IV. Immediately he abolishes the Amon traditions of his father, deposing Amon priests, and proposes instead the monotheistic worship of Aten. He builds a temple, Akhetaten, in honour of Aten, and refuses to practise polygamy, preferring to remain true to his wife, Nefertiti. As he becomes increasingly isolated from his people by his preoccupations, the Amon priests incite the people to overthrow him. Akhnaten and his family are left roaming the ruined Akhetaten, mourning the passing of their epoch....